Bernstein’s ‘The Idiot Culture’ and the Church in a Digital Age


While researching an article on comedy and theology, I ran across an article entitled “The Idiot Culture” written by Carl Bernstein (of Woodward and Bernstein) in 1992. In the article, Bernstein laments the decline of journalism to the “lowest common denominator” noting, “Good journalism is popular culture, but popular culture that stretches and informs its consumers rather than that which appeals to the ever descending lowest common denominator. If, by popular culture, we mean expressions of thought or feeling that require no work of those who consume them, then decent popular journalism is finished. What is happening today, unfortunately, is that the lowest form of popular culture—lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives—has overrun real journalism.” He goes on to assert, “We do not serve our readers and viewers, we pander to them.”

Why should it matter, as Bernstein suggests, that “speed and quantity substitute for thoroughness and quality, for accuracy and context”? Why should it matter that “The really significant trends in journalism have not been toward a commitment to the best and the most complex obtainable version of the truth, not toward building a new journalism based on serious, thoughtful reporting”? According to Bernstein, it matters because as we set aside the hard work of getting to the “best and the most complex obtainable version of the truth” we pave the way for “the spectacle, and the triumph, of the idiot culture.”

While there is certainly reason for Christians to be concerned with the state of journalism and media, we must also be concerned with our own forms of media and public conversation. To what extent has Christian media stopped “serving” its audiences in order to “pander” to them? How has Christian media promoted anxiety rather than awareness about the political movements of our day by surrendering the search for the “best and the most complex obtainable version of the truth? To what degree has “speed and quantity” been privileged over “thoroughness and quality, accuracy and context”?

When I ask questions like this, I’m often asked to offer examples about what I mean. In some of my more recent work, I’ve offered critiques and counterarguments that (I hope) correct and/or add nuance to the perspectives of particular individuals and their views on a given topic. For instance, in “Discipleship and the Old Testament,” I address Andy Stanley’s book Irresistible. My tendency would be to say that it offers an example of pandering rather than service since he allows his audience’s discomfort with the Old Testament to determine his use of it and views on it. His arguments set aside what is uncomfortable (i.e., the Old Testament) with no intention of re-introducing it at a later stage.

A second example may be found in Thinking Christian. There I analyze MacArthur’s answer to Ben Shapiro’s question about Christians and voting (you can see the interview here). I would point to MacArthur’s answer (which begins at around 6:30) as a good example of a narrow, less-than nuanced discussion that does not represent the “best and the most complex obtainable notion of truth.” It was a terribly simple answer to a complex question. In the book, I take pains to note the areas in which I agree with MacArthur, yet I also attempt to demonstrate the ways in which his logic closes off important theological realities and makes it seem as though the matter is clearer cut than it actually is.

Finally, I would point to any number of those who report on Christian scandals. I won’t mention names here as I have little interest in drawing attention to such writers. I will say that if you find yourself reading and listening to those who seem to benefit from the current crisis or are consistently telling Christians that the sky is falling, you may want to consider whether you really need to read or listen to them any longer.

On the one hand, there are surely misdeeds that need to be brought to light. My desire is not to silence those who might otherwise shed light on the sins occurring within Christian institutions. At the same time, I am concerned that a cottage industry has grown up around exposing Christian scandals. By seeking to drive pageviews (and, often, revenue), what we often end up reading is a “red herring” that distracts us from reforms that might begin changing the fundamental constitution of our organizations (e.g., hiring and performance management practices, networked relationships that largely determine who the next institutional leader will be, oddities in reporting and accounting practices, or board governance concerns). Stories are released without sufficient evidence, research, or substance so that we end up with something less like Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting and more like the he said/she said musings of former royals.

Rooting out sin in the church is something about which we should all be concerned. As such, we would do well to ensure that we are not becoming blood thirsty onlookers in a modern-day colosseum where violators are thrown to the lions for our entertainment. Such a community is not a sufficient alternative to our flawed Christian community. It lacks imagination and risk in so much as it also lacks a deep discernment of the Holy Spirit’s movements.

We can’t satisfy ourselves (let alone entertain ourselves) by outsourcing accountability to self-proclaimed prophets, truth seekers, or warriors for justice. To do so is to create a complacent, detached culture whose contribution to the purity of Christ’s bride entails little more than liking, sharing, or commenting. We will not become more faithful disciples by picking up the weapons of the world in order to shape the church into an image we find more palatable.

We need to be wary of Christian media that panders to us rather than serving us. We need to do our best to read and listen to substantive accounts that have done their best to offer the “best and the most complex obtainable notion of the truth.” How might we go about doing that?

First, commit to reading and listening at a different pace. Today’s media environment is, to some degree, dependent on page views. Advertisers look at page views and other volume-oriented metrics when determining where to spend their marketing dollars. Donors and supporters often look at “reach” as a key indicator of impact. As such, media outlets need a steady stream of content to keep “eyes on” pages. Unfortunately, the push for content doesn’t always produce quality, but reinforces a sort of journalism “that leaps out ahead of the evidence, that is surer than it has reason to be sure, that pontificates, spouts, hazards guesses, or “tells” when it is indeed “too soon to tell” (Mitchell Stephens, Beyond News).

We need to do our best to avoid that sort of journalism. If we are honest with ourselves, the news with which we interact everyday (or every hour or minute) isn’t particularly crucial for us to offer a faithful testimony to Christ on a daily basis.

I’m not advocating for a news free life, but for a different cadence. We don’t need to be “in the know” on a daily or even weekly basis. So, step away from those who are living on page views and pushing out content daily to capture your attention. Start checking in on what’s happening in the Christian world on a monthly or even bi-monthly basis. Set a pace that will allow stories to develop to a point that they have sufficient substance. Don’t settle for the sizzle without the steak.

Second, read and listen outside of time. Christians have a rich, compelling intellectual history. Don’t ignore it. Do some historical research. Consider what great thinkers and great ministers have written.

The value of digging into history isn’t about feeding nostalgia for some past “golden age” but about gaining a different perspective on the conversations we are having today. Augustine, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Luther, and a host of other writers offer a number of relevant discussions that can help us evaluate modern-day topics in a different way.

By reading “out of time” we allow ourselves the opportunity to escape the narrower positions taken by our contemporaries. We will likely begin to see that may be presented as an “either…or” choice is far more multifaceted. We will begin to see that there are often more possibilities available to us than those who tell stories today might like us to think.

Finally (but likely most importantly), read the scriptures and works with theological rigor more often than you catch the nightly news, read about the latest scandal, or listen to your favorite radio personality. Part of the reason I have decided to write fewer posts is that I don’t want to contribute to the noise that can too easily distract us from immersing ourselves in God’s word and wrestling with theology. This blog will never offer the sort of wisdom found in the biblical text. While you can certainly overdose on the latest Christian devotional material or commentary on daily events, God’s word is always worthy of our attention.

Don’t get me wrong, informed discussion is an essential activity for the church. But it seems to me that we must admit our tendency to have less-than informed discussions that do not conform us to the image of Christ but make God seem more like us.

May we be a people that refuse to accept anemic notions of truth as if they are robust, replace service with pandering, and to so neglect the scriptures that the words of men begin to supplant the word of God.


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